Al-Ahram Weekly Online
2 - 8 August 2001
Issue No.545
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Al-Ahram:

A Diwan of contemporary life (401)

Dr Yunan Labib RizkThis instalment of the Diwan takes us back to erstwhile Arab glory in southern Europe. Between 711 and 732, the Arabs conquered the entire Iberian peninsula all the way up to its borders with France. The Arab presence in Andalusia brought great prosperity and development, particularly in architecture, as well as a unique culture. This has been a source of inspiration for some Arab poets and playwrights, notably Egypt's Ahmed Shawqi and Aziz Abaza. The seven-century Arab reign, however, collapsed by the end of the 15th century because of inter-Arab divisions and feuds. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* pores over an Egyptian tourist's first-hand account published by Al-Ahram about the vestiges of the Arab civilisation in Andalusia


The glory of yore

SURVIVING GLORIES OF MUSLIM SPAIN: Left The Mesquita at Cordoba, right: interor courtyard at Alhambra, Granada
The Arabs and Muslims have always looked back to their days in Andalusia, which lasted more than seven centuries (711-1492) with a mixture of lamentation and grief. These sentiments have permeated many 20th century Arabic literary works, particularly the poetry of the "Prince of Poets" Ahmed Shawqi, who spent five years of exile (1915-20) in that land, and Aziz Abaza's play, The Andalusian Sunset which portrays the end of the Arab era and the fall of Granada.

The Arab conquest of Spain was a remarkable feat. Within the space of 20 years the Arab armies secured a foothold in southern Spain, put the Visigoth armies to route, pursuing them up to Tours in France, and brought the entire Iberian peninsula under their control, with the Pyrenees as their northern barrier. The vibrant civilisation that flourished in Andalusia under Muslim rule bedazzled contemporary Europeans and bequeathed a rich legacy of artistic, scientific and intellectual achievement, to which the monuments of Cordoba, Seville and Granada and the names of such philosophical luminaries as Ibn Rushd (Averroes) stand testimony.

The element of grief in the lament over the past Andalusian glories emanates from the internecine divisions that assisted their downfall. Even today, when we contemplate the problems that riddle inter-Arab relations we compare them to the fall of the Marwanid Dynasty in Spain and the splintering of that kingdom into several community dynasties, known as muluk al-tawa'if, which the Christian states in the north were able to play off against one another as they expanded southwards.

Inspired by these sentiments, the "eminent notable," Labib El-Batanuni, made a trip to Spain, during which he furnished Al-Ahram with an account of his journey. Although his letters -- fourteen in all and serialised in the newspaper between 7 September and 28 October 1926 -- appeared under the headline, "A Tour of Spain," "A Tour of Andalusia" would have been more appropriate. He may have intended to record his impressions of the people and the ways of life he observed, but the lure of the past, of the Islamic epoch in Andalusia, proved too powerful, so powerful as to transport El-Batanuni from his contemporary Spanish surroundings to an exploration of the annals of Arab history.

By his seventh instalment, El-Batanuni had turned back the hands of time to the beginning of the Arab conquest. He writes: "After Moussa Ibn Nusair consolidated his rule over Tangiers, he commanded one of his followers -- Tareq Ibn Ziyad -- to cross over to Andalusia. Thus, in 710, Tareq Ziyad led a force of 300 Arab and 10,000 Berber soldiers to the mountain that now bears his name (Jabal Tareq -- Gibraltar), and from there advanced into Andalusia. There he encountered the Visigoth armies under the command of King Dardiq, at Jerez and died of his wounds. Tareq continued his advance until he reached Toledo, from where he communicated the news of his progress to his sovereign, Moussa Ibn Nusair. Moussa immediately set off with a force of Berbers, caught up with Tareq and continued to advance until he reached Barcelona. He then returned to Morocco after having arranged matters in those territories and stationed garrisons in their ports."

El-Batanuni marvelled at the scope and rapidity of the Arab conquests in the western Mediterranean. He found it incredible that "a handful of Arabs could cross the sea from Africa to Europe; seize Andalusia, the rest of Spain and Portugal; then cross the impenetrable barrier of the Pyrenees, with their lofty peaks and glaciers, tortuous cliffs and chasms, and their rugged passes the secrets of which few would know; and then to invade France and advance up to Poitiers, only 230 kilometers from Paris -- All in twenty years!"

In the following installment, the Egyptian tourist of the early 20th century extolled the achievements of the Andalusian Ummayads. "They fostered all aspects of civilisation," he wrote. "They devoted themselves to agriculture. They dug irrigation canals and water channels; they planted orchards, prepared fields, set out pasture land and cultivated gardens; and they vied in the construction of elegant homes and splendid palaces. Thus, they transformed that land into a munificent paradise that embraced people of all classes in the fold of its bounty." He continues, "The Ummayad Caliphate reached undreamed of heights of power, prosperity, well-being and civilisation."

El-Batanuni devoted considerable attention to Abdel Rahman Al-Nasser, the seventh Ummayad amir and the first to be called the Leader of the Faithful (Caliph) in Andalusia. "He was likened to Haroun Al-Rashid because of the vastness of his empire, the grandeur of his state, his extensive knowledge and his generosity. Similarly, they likened his son, Al-Hakam to the Caliph Al-Ma'moun, because of his intelligence and vast erudition. He was also known for his keenness to disseminate knowledge, towards which end he had diverse books brought over from all quarters of the Orient and thereby accumulated a library containing hundreds of thousands of volumes of rare and precious works."

This bourgeoning culture and civilisation made the term "dark ages" even more fitting for medieval Europe, yet, simultaneously, contributed greatly towards nudging Europe towards enlightenment. It was not in material terms alone that Andalusia flourished, but in music and the arts, and, more importantly, in all branches of education. "Schools and academic institutions overflowed with students and scholars from all quarters of the Islamic world. From these academies there emerged intellectual luminaries in every branch of science: Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in philosophy, Ibn Zahr in medicine, Ibn Fernas in mathematics, Ibn Zeidun in literature, Ibn Abi Amer in architecture, Ibn Mahah in jurisprudence, and a host of others too many to mention here."

The vibrant institutions of education also drew many Europeans who later rose to positions of power and distinction. Particularly notable among these was a graduate of the University of Cordoba who eventually became Pope Sylvester II. El-Batanuni goes on to observe that Cordoba in the western Mediterranean was like the University of Alexandria in the east. "At its prime it attracted students from everywhere, even from Italy and Greece, as is the case today with the great universities of Europe."

But, like many others who studied Andalusian history, El- Batanuni's nostalgia for past glories soon ceded to bitterness, a sentiment apparent in his title for his next instalment: "The cause of the disunity and weakness of the Arabs in Spain." The writer attributed the primary cause to increasingly hostile rivalries over the caliphate. This fragmentation began under the chief minister under Al-Hakam Ibn Al-Nasser, who brought over many Moroccan Berbers and conferred upon them high government offices, "leading them to the conviction that the caliphs were weak and encouraging them to establish independent mini states." The first Berber tribes to declare their autonomy were the Benu Juhur in Cordoba, the Benu Abbad in Seville and the Benu Ziri in Grenada, and they were followed by the Benu Dhi Nun in Toledo, the Benu Amer in Palencia and the Benu Hud in Saragossa. All were eventually defeated by the Franks in the north and the Murabits (Almoravids) in the south.

El-Batanuni explains that it was not just this splintering that made these mini kingdoms vulnerable, but also the fact that they were constantly invading one another in order to satisfy their territorial ambitions. Thus, "when they found themselves exposed to encroachment from the peoples of the north, they appealed to the Murabit (Almoravid) kingdom in Morocco, whose armies succeeded in repelling the Spanish armies."

However, if calm was restored under a form of Almoravid hegemony, the muluk al-tawa'if continued to levy crushing taxes on their subjects, who, in turn, appealed again to the Moroccan ruler. This time, moreover, the chieftains not only rebelled against Morocco, but they also allied themselves with the Christian armies against the Almoravids. In response, the Moroccan ruler, Ibn Tashfin, invaded Spain, conquered the chieftains "one after the other," and brought Andalusia under Almoravid control.

With all these little wars, the rivalries and the intrigues, the Muslim era came to an end in Andalusia.

The Egyptian tourist visited and furnished Al-Ahram readers with vivid descriptions of many parts of Spain -- Madrid, Barcelona, Gibraltar and the Pyrenees -- that have little bearing on the Islamic civilisation in the Iberian peninsula. But, his heart was primarily in Andalusia and it was to the cities of this region that he devoted most of his attention.

Cordoba, which became the capital of the Ummayad caliphate under Abdel-Rahman Al-Nasser, "attained the splendour of Baghdad in civilisation, sciences and the arts." The Great Mosque built by Abdel-Rahman Al-Dakhil was still as magnificent as ever: "The qibla (direction of the holy ka'ba) wall eludes description. I estimate that it is about seven meters long and 12 meters high, with the mihrab (prayer niche) located in the centre. The entire surface of this wall is overlaid with a covering of finely crafted, intricate mosaic blending pieces of many different colours of marble with gold and mother of pearl." The mosaic was designed to create a curious effect. "When you look at it from the right you observe different patterns from those you observe when looking at it from the left. This effect is created by the exploitation of the reflection of the light, a technique that astounds the mind and inspires a sense of awe at the wonders of Arab craftsmanship."

The hands of "conquest, plunder and religious zealotry" had a great impact in Cordoba. El-Batanuni estimated that Cordoba under Muslim rule had more than 2,000 mosques, which, like Al-Azhar in Cairo, the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus and the Zaytouna Mosque in Tunis, were also major centres of education. Indeed, he remarks, "it is not difficult to imagine how Cordoba, in the times of the Arabs, attained a prominence in scholasticism and learning unrivalled by any other Islamic or non-Islamic city of the age."

The Spanish conquests decimated other aspects of life. Cordoba under the Arabs was "a blossoming paradise, a luxuriant garden due to the new systems of irrigation they introduced." When the Spanish seized the city in 1236, expelled its inhabitants and transformed it into a stronghold at the edge of their expanding empire, "they abandoned the irrigation canals to neglect as a result of which those once verdant orchards could be inhabited only by owls."

On the other hand, he could not help but detect a distinct Arab influence that continued to prevail, particularly in domestic architecture. "Outer doorways lead to a small vestibule, at the end of which there is generally an ironwork gateway that opens on to a courtyard. In the courtyard you find a beautiful verdant garden interspersed with beds of colourful flowers and in the centre there is a marble fountain."

El-Batanuni's first observation about Seville was that it was unbearably hot. His next observation is that this city under the Arabs was "the most prosperous, most developed and most intellectually advanced of all the Andalusian cities, especially under Ibn Ayad." He continues: "In its heyday, it was the bride of the Andalusian cities, the sun from which the rays of greatness, wealth and luxury emanated."

Still, he had to confess that after the Arab expulsion, Seville remained the best city in southern Spain after Madrid. At the same time, however, his description of the city was marked by a certain defiance. "The Arab influence prevails in most buildings, but the courtyards are mostly devoid of those small gardens one finds particularly in the homes of Cordoba. In some buildings one observes elements of European design, but the city as a whole is still thoroughly Arab today and will remain so tomorrow."

The reason for this, he explains, is that the Arabs succeeded in designing their houses to counteract the intense heat. Had the Spanish failed to understand this or had they thought that the design was inappropriate to the city's climatic conditions, "they would have altered it long ago and replaced it with the architecture one finds in Madrid and Barcelona."

Labib El-Batanuni was delighted to find an old Arab quarter still intact. "Its streets are so narrow that they can only accommodate a single vehicle. If two cars approach from opposite directions, one of them has to back up in order to allow the other to pass. The Seville municipality has decided to preserve this quarter as it is, prohibiting renovation in order to maintain its original historic Arab character. The Spanish-American society built a house in this neighbourhood on the model of the traditional Arab design and made it into a tourist destination. It must be said that it is very beautiful."

A visit to the Seville Cathedral was also in order, although El-Batanuni maintained he entered it in order to escape the heat -- "In the past, people always took refuge from the heat in houses of worship," he claimed. The cathedral was located in a main square bordered by shady trees. "The major hotels of the city are located here and it is in close proximity to the Alcazar, which is one of the most splendid sights to behold."

The cathedral itself brought the writer to a subject of considerable importance: the conversion of mosques into churches. The 15th century gothic cathedral was built on the ruins of a mosque. The destruction and conversion of the holy site, writes El-Batanuni, "wounds the hearts of the vanquished and leaves an eternal scar that is passed on from father to son across the generations." Christians in Spain were not the only ones guilty of these conversions. El-Batanuni suggests that the Ottomans would not have incurred such European wrath had they not converted the famous Aya Sophia church into a mosque. "As long as all mosques, indeed all religions are the domain of God, people should be accorded the freedom of worship," he concludes.

Labib El-Batanuni's last stop in Seville was the Alcazar, or royal palace. Although now covering only half of the land area it had under the Arabs, the remaining structures have been preserved so conscientiously, he tells us, that when one of the Spanish kings wanted to make some renovations, he brought over Arab workers to undertake the task.

El-Batanuni reached Granada with some difficulty. Although the last outpost of Muslim rule in Spain was only 288 kilometers from Seville, the old, dilapidated train he booked on took more than 10 hours to get there. The railway between the two cities consisted of only a single track, which meant that his train had to stop for hours in several train stations en route, in order to let oncoming trains pass.

Located in the fertile Genil River valley, Granada, too, bloomed under the Arabs. It was a vista of "verdant fields and blossoming orchards extending as far as the eye can see." Dominating the city on La Sabika -- the "red hill" -- was, of course, the famous palace and administrative compound, Alhambra, built by the Benu Al-Ahmar of Granada.

El-Batanuni opens his extensive description of this complex with a bitter lament: "This is Alhambra, which time has preserved for us to remain a source of pride immune to the passage of time. Do we have anything else to boast of apart from the works of our forefathers?"

The Egyptian tourist proceeds to take Al-Ahram readers through his own guided tour of Alhambra: from the Mexuar, or hall of justice, into the Leones Palace, through the Leones Courtyard with its 12 stone lions, on to Los Arrayenes Courtyard, then into the Throne Hall, the Ambassadors Hall, the royal mosque and the royal bath.

El-Batanuni was overawed by the richness, harmony and expert craftsmanship of the Arab decorative elements. In the Mexuar, he noted the image of a hand raised to the heavens and next to it the key that symbolised that "justice is the key to happiness in the world and the hereafter." More impressive was the Leones Courtyard, with its marble-lined pool and its elegant arcade resting on paired marble columns, and the intricately interlaced plaster work that covered every façade.

El-Batanuni was also impressed by some of the more mundane conveniences, notably the royal baths, which he said were constructed on the ancient Roman model. "One enters the baths through a beautiful chamber in which are situated two marble mastabas, one for the king and the other for the queen to relax on. In the centre is a marble fountain, and four granite columns support a surrounding gallery, from which, it is said, young maidens would play and sing music as the king bathed."

The Spanish palace served as striking evidence of the sumptuousness of the Arab decorative arts and a mournful reminder of Andalusian tale of grandeur brought down by disunity.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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